An ode to Steve Conway, Britain’s forgotten balladeer

The offhand purchase of a second-hand CD introduced Leo McKinstry to a sublime singer. So, who was the late Steve Conway, and why isn’t he remembered today?

I had bought the CD on a whim at a car boot sale in Margate, knowing nothing about the singer. In my ignorance, I thought it would probably contain another standard collection of light, slushy ballads, for which I have an eccentric fondness. But from the moment I began to play the album, I was captivated.

In its effortless smoothness, delicate power and melodic resonance, the voice perfectly evoked a sense of romantic nostalgia. As one tender song followed another, I was transported back to the sepia world of the immediate post-war era. Yet the voice had more than just poignancy. There was also a haunting, almost tragic, quality about it, heightened by the slight tremble in the higher notes. The singer behind this unique sound was Steve Conway. At the time of my whimsical purchase, his name meant nothing to me, despite my affection for the crooners of the past. That was the outmoded style of music which had always most appealed to me.

Growing up as a teenager in Belfast in the 1970s, I had little interest in pop, rock or punk. Indeed, at university, a lecturer – passing my room one afternoon – said with exasperation: “You know I didn’t man the barricades and go through the revolution of ’68 so the likes of you could listen to Neil Sedaka.”

But Conway was different to anyone I had heard before. His atmospheric voice kept echoing inside my head. Intrigued by the forgotten man with this special talent, I had to find out more about him. And as I learnt, Conway’s own heart-breaking story was a reflection of his music, combining deep romance with lingering sorrow.

He might be almost unknown today, but in the late Forties and early Fifties, Steve Conway was a big star, with a string of best-selling records. Often described as Britain’s answer to Bing Crosby, he had a hugely popular radio show on the BBC on Sunday afternoons and performed regularly to sell-out crowds. The playwright Noël Coward said that Conway was his favourite singer. Doris Day and Bob Hope were admirers. Ray Pallet, the editor of Memory Lane magazine, which specialises the music of this time, goes so far as to say that Conway was “one of the finest, if not the finest, vocalist that Britain has ever produced”.

Yet there was a dark shadow lingering over all this success, for the more Conway’s career began to blossom, the worse his health became. Just as he was approaching his peak, still aged just 31, his life was brought to an abrupt and premature end. It was a cruel injustice, which denied his reputation the lasting greatness that his talent deserved.

What was so remarkable about Conway’s all-too-brief spell of fame was that he had no musical training whatsoever. He never sang in a school or church choir as a youth; nor did he ever learn to read music. But he always had an extraordinary, natural ear for music, which meant that he could repeat the notes of a tune to perfection after just one hearing. When he had seen a musical for the first time, he could hum the entire score immediately afterwards. This ability was combined with his instinctive gifts both for interpreting a melody and for bringing sincerity to a lyric, all factors that made him such a compelling singer.

But he had no thoughts of a professional life in music during his tough upbringing in the East End of London. Conway was born Walter James Groom in Bethnal Green in 1920, the eldest son of a struggling labourer. The family was so poor that their only holiday was an annual hop-picking trip to Kent every summer. Jimmy, as Conway was always known among friends and relatives, also had several early experiences of tragedy, losing his sister and two twin brothers before any of them had reached the age of six. Moreover, his father died during the London Blitz when, serving as firefighter, he fell off a ladder and suffered fatal injuries.

On leaving school, Jimmy had a variety of badly-paid manual jobs, the first as an errand boy for an embroidery firm. After this, he went to work as a machinist at a shoe factory, where the foreman took an intense dislike to Jimmy’s enthusiasm for singing while on the shop floor. During one bitter row between them over this habit, Jimmy punched the foreman and was promptly sacked. He then had spells as a porter at Billingsgate fish market and as a cleaner at a brewery. It was during his mid-teens that he reached one of the crucial turning points of his life, when he met a local East End girl called Lilian Butcher, who worked in a textile factory near his home. Lilian was to become the great love of his life. She was the woman who inspired profound devotion in him and infused his singing with such romantic power.

Today, nearly 80 years later, she recalls that it was love at first sight.

“My bicycle tyres were flat and Jimmy offered to pump them up. As he did so, he looked up at me with his big blue eyes. I fell for him instantly. It was wonderful,” she told me from her home in Christchurch, Dorset. They married in 1941, and became, in Lilian’s words, “terribly close. Jimmy used to say that we were really one person.” When Conway later sang of love, chivalry and fidelity, he sincerely meant it. If he was on tour, he always tried to get home every night, such was his attachment to his happy domestic life.

During the war, Lilian worked in a munitions factory, but Jimmy had a shock when he tried to enlist for military service. He was declared unfit due to a heart condition, a legacy of childhood rheumatic fever, which had damaged his coronary valves. Unfortunately, Jimmy, who carried on working at the brewery, was never told to seek treatment, a failure that would ultimately have disastrous consequences for him.

Money was extremely tight in the early years of marriage, but that began to change as Jimmy entered the world of showbusiness. He had always enjoyed singing, but he was a modest, unassuming man and it was only due to pressure from Lilian that he started to enter amateur contests. Immediately, his natural ability shone through and by the end of the war he had become a professional, giving up his brewery job and winning a contract with the BBC.

In further indicators of his new status, he underwent elocution lessons to lessen his Cockney accent and, on the advice of the comedian and radio presenter Charlie Chester, changed his stage name to “Steven Conway”.

More success followed. He topped the bill at venues throughout the country, was awarded a lucrative contract with EMI and by 1948 was earning some £300 week.

It was that unmistakable voice that was the key to his growing fame. Conway wanted to record swing numbers as well as his signature melancholic ballads like The Stars Will Remember, but his management rightly made him stick to the theme of romantic yearning.

Ray Pallett explains the attributes that made Conway’s style so appealing: “His mellow voice not only had perfect pitch but also a wonderful and effortless range. His technique enabled him to use vibrato and falsetto with amazing, emotional effect.”

For all his achievements, however, Conway’s personality did not change. Unassuming, friendly and generous, he was astonished at his popularity. “I’m only a singer,” he would say. “He was a loving father, great fun with everyone. When he got back from a recording session, he would often play football with the kids in the street. His best friend was the milkman,” his daughter Janice, who also lives in Christchurch, told me. Even when the family moved from their cramped house in the East End to a smart detached property in Ickenham, west London, Conway was only persuaded to do so by his manager.

Fade away: Conway in an ambulance with his wife, Lilian  

Sadly, time was now running out for Conway. The long-term ravages of his heart condition were now catching up with him. In 1950, he made some of his most unforgettable records, including My Foolish Heart and Autumn Leaves, both of them eloquently heart-rending. But now the sorrow was becoming all too real. That same year, while on a trip with family and friends on the Thames, he badly strained his heart when their boat ran into trouble and he had struggled to get it to safety. He carried on performing and recording, but his health began to deteriorate severely after that incident. “From that day, he was never the same,” recalls Lilian. In May 1951, Conway collapsed on stage at the Bradford Alhambra and did so again at the Hull Palace towards the end of the year. After this second collapse, he was admitted to Charing Cross hospital, where he was examined by the King’s surgeon, Sir Russell Brock, who recommended surgery to try to repair the heart valves. Though a straightforward procedure now, it was a risky operation then, as Lilian was warned. Yet Conway, with his usual equanimity, was optimistic, even promising the family a holiday in Paris when he had recovered.

The operation was carried out on 10 April 1952. After he had come round from the anaesthetic, he was visited by Lilian. It was just a week after their 11th wedding anniversary.

“I love you. I think you’re beautiful,” he told her as he lay in his oxygen tent. The next morning he was dead, having suffered post-operative complications.

With mournful appropriateness, the last song that Steve Conway recorded was entitled With All My Heart and Soul. It was a sad twist of fate that the man who made romance the enriching central theme of his life, both on and off the stage, should have died of damaged heart.

Steve Conway’s recordings are available at memorylane.org.uk

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